Explaining White Supremacy to 'Innocent' White People

06/19/2015 06:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

I, for one, am tired of racism and violence against black bodies. I am tired of listening to excuses and deflections that reiterate the problem as one of individual moral failure and not the real issue: white supremacy. I am talking about the "innocent" white people who find it incredibly difficult to believe that white supremacy and racism did not extend beyond the 1960s. Newsflash: it does and your refusal to see the facts of American history is costing us bodies and is diminishing your own humanity (whether or not you realize it).

I'll begin with a brief history lesson.

When he boarded a train headed for Abbeville, South Carolina on October 16, 1868, Methodist minister and African American State Senator Rev. Benjamin Randolph was canvassing the state on an election tour. Just three years earlier, the state of South Carolina held black people in bondage and it was Randolph who was among the signatories on the resolution that would bring forth dreams and visions of freedom for the black people of South Carolina. The resolution regarded slavery thus:

That we regard slavery as abolished by the war, and abandon, in good faith, all hopes of retaining it; that we are willing, under the circumstances, to amend the Federal and State Constitutions to accomplish this end, and in proof of the reliance, to be placed on our voluntary action in this matter.

State Senator Rev. Benjamin Randolph was killed before the train took off. Randolph was assassinated by three white men on account of a vision of freedom and equality that sought to raise the political standing of African Americans in South Carolina and in the country at large. Even on a symbolic level, Randolph's presence in the State House was surely representative of the demands on a healthy democracy. That democracy required local acts of continual resistance and electoral representation is not lost on me. The white gunmen, of course, saw this as an affront to their own political standing. No one, as the thinking went, would be taking their country.

If the thinking sounds eerily familiar, it is because this thinking, in 2015, drove a white gunman to enter the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston -- one of the oldest in the region -- and shoot down black parishioners. He claimed the lives of nine, including the pastor of the church, State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

The gunman enacted a long history of racial terrorism against black bodies, including a state senator -- who is very likely to be one of a handful of black state officials murdered in this fashion in the history of South Carolina. The nation hasn't covered much ground if the space which makes these acts possible remains alive and in effect.

The civil rights icon, Eugene Patterson, penned a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

50 years later, Birmingham church bombing victims honored gallery
50 years later, Birmingham church bombing victims honored
We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

When you, the "innocent" white people, explain the killings as an isolated act, you conceal a key truth about the relationship between past and present. The nation can't really repeat a history it hasn't moved away from. The nation made this happen. The complicity is yours.

But I can hear the "innocent" white people asking, "Well, how can you so surely say we haven't moved away from the racist histories of slavery and Jim Crow?"

I can say this for a few reasons.

1. If black electoral victories are hugely symbolic as indicators of our nation's willingness to confront at least some idea of racial justice, these indicators are tossed into full relief by the present carceral crisis, the most vicious and punitive in the entire world, which relegates millions and millions of black people into a permanent underclass. There are many other indicators with which the case can be made.

2. Because black people should be the judges of the extent to which our bodies are undervalued and disposable. Black people, as victims of systematic theft and violence, and not "innocent" white people, should be the judges of the extent to which the government has failed some of its citizens.

It's not really difficult to make the connections between the gunmen who gunned down Rev. Randolph in 1868 and the 16th Street bombing in 1963 and the gunman who shot down nine souls at Mother Emanuel in 2015. I submit that the problem is not that connections cannot be made. It's that you 'innocent' white people don't want to make them, either by willful refusal or outright denial. I suspect that calling into question the racial progress of our country threatens the myth which you earnestly believe. You don't want to deal with this because your children, your wives, your mothers are not being mowed down like cattle. Your unarmed sons are not being gunned down by police. Your children are not being held in cages for crimes without trial.

Consider that the gunman entered the church to "take back his country." Again, it is not difficult to draw comparisons here. The rejection of a radically inclusive democratic vision colors this moment. It's not just the gunman, either. It's the fact of 22 states refusing to expand Medicaid. It's the racial double standard on guns. It's the Confederate flag that proudly stands to memorialize the South as the bedrock of human bondage.

But the moment is not unique. And the reason it isn't unique is because the facts of white supremacy has not gone away. Racism doesn't stop and go home to rest. It develops and strengthens and re-manifests itself in so many ways. It's housing segregation and poor schools and poverty.

White supremacy doesn't exist on its own. It is constructed. It has an origin and it will have a death. But it does not exist as this big vast structure without a captain at the helm. It has to be maintained. And it most often is by you 'innocent' white people who insist on vigorously denying its existence or insisting that black people are delusional for reminding you.

The fact is this: white folks are going to have to deal with the real problem of racial injustice in this country, not black people, white people. That means you. You have to have community meetings. You have to have the speak-outs, teach-ins, and tough heart to heart conversations with your fellow compatriots about the importance of valuing black lives. You have to engender the empathy and will to tear down the house you built. Otherwise, the blood is on your hands.